Don’t ignore the Muslim Brotherhood

The West can be crucial in making sure that democratic ideals are instilled in countries like Egypt.

As the political landscape convulses throughout the Middle East and North Africa, it is imperative that the West embrace the changes. For decades, Western leaders allied themselves with authoritarian regimes for the sake of stability, but the people that suffered under these regimes are demanding fundamental reforms. The West (referring to the European Union and North America) cannot afford to isolate Egypt, and risk another hostile country next to Israel, as this would clearly end any prospects of a peace process.
Whether these revolts will lead to democracy is still to be determined. However, the West can be crucial in making sure that democratic ideals are instilled in countries like Egypt.
Many fear that the revolution in Egypt will imitate Iran in 1979. While there are undeniable parallels, one cannot ignore the differences. Mainly, Hosni Mubarak was not placed in power by the West, as was the shah. Thus an inherent hatred and distrust of the West does not permeate Egypt as it did Iran.
Also, the example of Iran exists now to show how a democratic movement can collapse into an authoritarian regime. The youth in Egypt, instrumental in these protests, do not want to trade one dictatorial regime for another. However, a scenario similar to Iran might occur if the West were to alienate certain actors like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Evidently, the Brotherhood is incredibly important in Egyptian politics and society. Originally founded to combat colonialism, it has become a grassroots movement that views Islam as the “solution.”
While the implementation of Shari’a law in Egypt may alarm Western leaders, this doesn’t necessarily mean the regime will be anti-Western. Saudi Arabia is an example of how even a religiously extreme regime can have important Western alliances.
Although an officially banned party, the Muslim Brotherhood still managed to include its members in parliament. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, it gained 88 out of 444 seats because members ran as independents.
It has extensive influence and support due to the social services it provides. We cannot simply cast it as another radical group that wants global jihad. Simplistic labeling will influence our perceptions and produce the undesired effect of pushing such organizations to embrace alliances with other actors.
We must recognize the Brotherhood’s significance, and begin to talk with its leaders to gain mutual understanding. It would be a serious mistake to treat the Muslim Brotherhood as the West treated Hamas when it refused to recognize its victory in the 2006 Gaza elections.
While Western leaders may prefer a moderate and secular party in Egypt, they must recognize the legitimacy of the Brotherhood, which holds the firm belief that Islam and modernity are perfectly compatible.
EGYPT IS a country exposed to Western culture and ideas, particularly due to its tourism industry. The Egyptian people have demanded democracy, and will not accept another autocratic regime.
The Muslim Brotherhood understands this, and supports the moderate former IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, ElBaradei and former presidential candidate Ayman Nour will be central figures in this transition. However, Western leaders must recognize the long-term importance of this revolution, and speak to all relevant stakeholders.
This will help ensure that Egypt won’t become a state like Iran, detached from the West.
European and American leaders didn’t commit any grave diplomatic mistakes during the past few weeks. No major political leader, with the exceptions of Binyamin Netanyahu and Silvio Berlusconi, insisted on the continuance of the Mubarak regime. After his fall, Western leaders praised the revolution.
This is a step in the right direction.
The West needs to encourage true democratic reform through all political, diplomatic and economic means. If Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy insist on a dialogue between all parties, then the regime that emerges will likely not be anti-Western.
Concrete steps must also be taken to ensure strong political and economic relations. Significant investment packages (with preconditions of constitutional reform) would be an important step forward.
Elections alone will not deliver democracy. However, fair and free elections, with international monitors, are of course necessary.
More importantly, if the Muslim Brotherhood were to gain significant power through elections, it would be dangerous to ignore it, or view it as perilous and illegitimate. A wiser approach would be to accept the election results and begin to treat the Brotherhood as a group with solemn responsibilities, and with a role in the international community. This would perhaps have the desired effect of moderating its views.
ALTHOUGH THERE is a danger that elections will produce a radical Islamist government, it is necessary to respect the will of the Egyptian people.
If European and North American leaders ignore such actors, we risk having to deal with an unfriendly regime. We must focus on including the new Egypt in the international community. If it is the wish of people to have their religion represented in their government, then perhaps we should encourage reforms based on the Turkish model. Here is an example of a democratic government within an Islamic framework, which is fully involved with the West. It is a prime example of how Islam, the West and democracy can exist in harmony.
Diplomatic recognition and dialogue, along with tangible economic assistance, must occur if sustainable democratic change is to take place. We must take the risk of choosing democracy over stability.
The writer is a research assistant in the Middle East Faculty of the NATO Defense College in Rome, and studies international affairs at Northeastern University. The views expressed in this article are his own. This article was first published by the EU Observer.